How divorce affects children

How Divorce Affects Children

Divorce specialist Natalie Maximets
Natalie Maximets is a certified life transformation coach with expertise in mindfulness and sustainability. She is a published author focused on the most progressive solutions in the field of Psychology. Natalie helps people go through fundamental life challenges, such as divorce, and build an entirely new life by reframing their personal narrative.

The impact that divorce has on children is an extremely important and complicated issue.

We all know that divorce has a negative impact on many aspects of children's lives. But does this mean its effect is only negative? And how does the effect differ across children?

Divorce is generally considered to have a negative impact on all areas of a child’s life, including physical and mental health, educational attainment, cognitive development, and romantic relationships. It affects the child’s social development and communication skills.

Some research has been done, however, which shows that while a family breakdown does have an adverse effect on the child’s life, compared to a child in an intact family, this effect tends to fade over the long-term.

It’s a widespread notion, popularized in films and culture, that divorce is bad for children. We view the family unit, with mother, father, and child, as something fundamental to the child’s life, and thus disrupting it is necessarily painful for all parties involved.

Divorce is always difficult and involves a degree of pain for all the participants. The effects, however, are often indirect – even though children of divorce are more aggressive due to numerous challenges of divorce, aggression is more often connected with guilt, and they might have more difficulties in dealing with that. Such people more often consider relationship fragile and unstable and more often divorce themselves. Statistically it is more difficult for children of divorced parents to be successful at school and in their professional career. At the same time, all divorces and children of divorce are so different that it is hardly possible to unify them. For example, any pathological development is very seldom connected with one event; usually it is connected with a lack of maternal attachment, heavy conflicts, the absence of a father, etc.

Another thing that statistics can obscure is the fact that in cases of divorce, the alternative is not a happy family; rather, it is usually a conflict-heavy and tense relationship between parents. Marriage can help children only if it is a healthy one. Chronic conflict can lead to constant stress for children and lessen the chances of a good relationship and trust later in life.

After all if happy parents are not necessarily good parents, then unhappy people are very unlikely to be good parents at all. Finally, we cannot possibly separate the influence of the divorce itself and the influence of the problems that preceded and caused the divorce.

Many researchers say that while divorce is by no means painless for the child, the actual impact it ends up having is mediated by a range of factors. What are those factors?

1. The post-divorce relationship between the child and both parents.

Many of the negatives effects that divorce has on children, and on their social and cognitive development, are tied to the full or partial loss of a parent, in cases where they seldom see each other. The worst case, naturally, is when one parent begins living separately, and the child believes that he or she may never see them again.

Children often feel guilty for the divorce, and they think: “He does not want to see me; he’s angry at me” and that only serves to solidify their guilt.

The absence of the father post-divorce can, in cases, be more damaging than the death of a parent because the child feels unneeded. When a parent dies, the child receives a lot of emotional support, with friends and family talking about how much the parent loved them. This can help dull a fraction of the pain. With divorce, however, the child does not tend to hear these words, and might even hear the opposite. Boys can lose their identification with the father, and girls can develop trust issues that could manifest in future relationships. Complete separation does not just make the child lonelier; it takes away a part of his or herself, his or her identity, which can lead to psychological problems.

There are cases when the child himself does not want to communicate with a parent who is living apart. This is most often the result of an unconscious coping method – the child seeks to solve a conflict of loyalty, or lays blame on this parent for the divorce. Not communicating helps get rid of one parent so that the child can identify with the other one – say, the mother – without any cognitive dissonance.

There are situations where fathers forget about their children. This does not mean they are bad or irresponsible; more often it is just unbearable for them to see their former wife, and face alienation from their children. This also applies to mothers who forbid their children from seeing their father because of inner fears and problems. In order to cope with the divorce, some parents must internally feel that their partner is terrible and unbearable. As a result, it is difficult for them to entrust a child to this partner.

However, coping with life after divorce means preserving a close and intense relationship with both parents, as the absence of one parent leads to depression, conflicts, school problems and psychosomatic disorders. A child in this situation can lose his sense of dignity and trust.

2. Whether the child can express and live through divorce-related emotions and feelings – grief, anxiety, rage, fear.

Here, it is important for the child to have adults around who will listen, “digest” and perhaps explain the child’s feelings.

Fortunately, many divorced parents are mindful of the need to take care of the children, perhaps consulting a professional so that the children “worry less” about the divorce. This is also connected with the deep sense of guilt that parents often feel because of the divorce.

This is a tricky path, as it might lead to suppression and hiding real feelings or painful reactions. It could lead to parents not being able to notice their children’s true plight and not perceiving signals of fear and worry. Besides, children very often feel what parents expect them to, or cannot bear the conflict and “play along” with their parents’ attitudes.

For example, when a mother who was the initiator of the divorce informs her children that his father will live together, and child asks: “Why?” After hearing the explanation and asking several routine questions, they answer “then it’s okay”. The child then asks if he can continue to play in the yard. The mother, in turn, feels relief that her child did not suffer from her decision. However, when the father tells them that he is going to live separately, mother and child start to cry – because the father did not want to go, and would be offended if they reacted indifferently. So we can see how, subconsciously, children are ready to live up to parents' expectations and become their therapists rather than show their own pain. In reality, children can reveal their pain when they are given room for this. The father can do this subconsciously. It is important to remember that the only way to work through the pain is to express it openly. Otherwise deep wounds stay unhealed in the child’s soul and result in the infamous “negative consequences of divorce”. Children seldom react openly on their own and thus need help in coping with their pain.

So, it is an almost certainty that the divorce will exact some sort of painful reaction from the child. One of them is the fear of losing father (or mother, if it’s she who will be living separately). The depth of the fear will depend heavily on the child’s previous experience with partings and goodbyes.

The second fear, especially for small children, is that love will come to an end – the fear that parents will stop loving me, just like it happened in the parental couple.

The loss of identification with one parent leads to a partial loss of the child’s own identity.

There’s an anger that children can feel for being left, and for their desires being neglected. Usually the anger is aimed at the parent who is considered guilty in the divorce, but sometimes they can blame both parents in turn. Unfortunately, many children (about 50%) blame themselves. But nearly all children feel at least some guilt for the divorce. This position can be confirmed in cases where the parents often quarrel about their child.

Guilt is a very hard feeling, and very often the symptoms of depression, aggression, violence are the consequences.

Divorce is a crisis and any child will have a reaction to it. It is possible, however, to get through it.

It is necessary for children to receive more tolerance and care than before. They also need some leeway if they regress in other areas of life – demands and expectations should become milder during this period.

Unfortunately, many adults are so overwhelmed with their own feelings and issues that they are unable, or barely able, to help their children in this area. Additionally, we can make the assertion some children raised by single mothers have lost not just their father, but part of their mother too. She’s lost her husband, and perhaps friends as well. She thus may find it more difficult to be as great and effective of a mother as she’d always been. There are several avenues to choose from to allow the child to live through his or her feelings, but the wish to help, and the acknowledgment that the child has feelings that need to be expressed, is already a big step forward. It will reduce potentially harmful effects.

3. Whether a clear and honest explanation is given.

If the parents hide the fact that a divorce took place, or lie about numerous details, the child is likely to pick up on the disconnect sooner or later. This will only add to the pain, and no one likes to be kept in the dark. An explanation of what is happening must include plans for the future, and be as truthful as possible. What can be omitted is personal opinions – blaming, disclosing intimate information about who said and did what, who you think is responsible, etc. This sort of dialogue is too heavy on the child, not to mention premature – oftentimes neither spouse knows exactly who is responsible for what in the breakdown of the marriage.

4. The quality of the relationship with parents pre-divorce.

The effect of divorce on children is also dependent on how good the relationships were before the divorce. Children who had trusting, loving relationships with both parents tend to cope better with life after divorce and accrue fewer psychological wounds. As long as the divorce didn’t shatter those relationships, perhaps by turning the child against one or both of his parents. It’s never too late to try and build a stable relationship of trust and respect.

5. The presence of psychological problems in the child.

Children whose mental health is already at risk tend to get hit harder by divorce. Mental health issues will balloon. Some children in this boat show almost no reaction – but this is typically the work of psychological defense mechanisms, and can end up making the problem worse by not giving the child a chance to fully live through their feelings. Children like this need extra attention and involvement, perhaps with the help of a professional psychiatrist.

6. Conflicting Loyalty.

Loyalty structures in an optimal family are balanced. Say the kid and his mom have a dispute – he can turn to dad for support without losing mom. Moreover, mom and dad don’t start disputing as a result, though they could certainly have a bit of healthy disagreement over whatever issue the kid raised. In divorce, though, children often blame themselves for what is going on. They feel that they are the wedge driving their parents apart.

It is very important for parents to be aware of their own jealousy towards the ex-partner. They must let the child know that he can still love both parents without feeling guilty or feeling like he has betrayed one of them.

Failure to do so will increase the likelihood of ambivalence in the child’s future relationships, and divorce. After all, when you feel love for one of the parents, this can feel like a betrayal of the other, to a young mind. Parents living separately, and the resulting communication barrier, complicates things and amplifies hard feelings. Children with conflicting loyalties often feel aggression but suppress it, resulting in violent acts sooner or later.

Conflicts that parents can have after divorce can also be connected with the fear of losing their children’s love – that is why some mothers even forbid the child from seeing his father, or at least try to organize a “coalition”. Some fathers can try to be all-permissive and idealised, being extra kind and at times spoiling their child – they are also scared of losing the love of their own child.

There is another phenomenon which can, unfortunately, influenced custody rulings in a negative way: many children become nervous before or after visiting separated parents. This is often considered as evidence that these visits are not useful, or that the father or mother who is living apart is to blame. The thing is that the transition from a triangular relationship to one with two parents separately is extremely difficult, especially for small children. “Now I can see dad only if I turn against mom”, and vice versa. A small child could be afraid to lose one or both parents – who knows what will happen during his or her absence. Parents should remember that before each visit, various separated-related issues might be triggered. Adults should provide emotional support and reassure the child that he is loved – not stop the visits. Despite a potentially negative visible effect, they are extremely important.

The solution to this problem is cooperation: both parents must act together to eradicate potential conflicting loyalty in the child. Both parents must assure the child that he or she can love both of them.

7. The relationship between the new parents.

This gives hope and an example of a happy couple, as well as a model to replace the second parent, whom the child cannot see so often. However, this can bring new problems if bad attitudes exist.

In some cases, the child might not feel accepted by the new parent. New siblings in the parent's relationship might also elicit jealousy, and the fear of being abandoned once more.

A good and stable relationship with both biological parents will soften the tension, even in cases where the child gets along with the new partner or partners. No matter how good a relationship the child has with his stepmother or stepfather, it doesn’t fully replace the biological connection, and it is crucially important to maintain both relationships. The child’s original parents are not just functional parts of their life, but sources of affection and love as well.

It is often the biological father who helps smoothen the child’s new relationship with his stepfather. It is much easier if you have your second parent to whom you can escape from the new couple. Besides, for step-parents it is sometimes more difficult to feel unconditional love towards a child, especially at adolescence.

As we can see, the impact that divorce has on children hinges on a number of factors. What we know for sure is that how a given family acts, and how much assistance and attention it provides to the child, affects both the short-term and long-term consequences of divorce on children.

Another question to consider is the age of the child. The impact of a divorce on small children will differ from the impact on adolescents. For very small children, it is likely that the problems which caused the divorce started from birth – the child was born into a tumultuous marriage. Communication issues might thus run deeper than for adolescents, who matured in a comparatively healthy environment.

The worst age for divorce for children

From this point of view, the worst age for children to be exposed to a divorced would be under two years old. Children at this point are extremely dependent on their parents being in a stable and happy state, which is nearly impossible in the face of divorce. Single mothers have to sort out their feelings whilst still taking care of a dependent child. The best thing parents can do for this infant is probably to sort themselves out, and provide the infant with stable care.

However, the fact that under two is the worst age for divorce does not mean that the divorce should not happen, or that you should try and avoid getting divorced when your child has just been born. If you raise the baby in a problem-filled and unstable marriage, it might strengthen the negative effects. If, on the other hand, the parents are able to remain a reliable and steady force in the young child’s life, help rebuild trust, attend to the emotions of the child, and reassure them, they might be able to establish a suitable environment for the child to grow up in.

Here’s a quick example of what one mother did for her little girl – she hung picture of the girl’s father, told stories about him, and used “Daddy/ Mommy” characters in games. This is particularly helpful for very small children who cannot keep someone in their memory for a week so easily, and can lose track of time. A calendar, where visits to father can be marked, is also very helpful.

If parents can stay reliable and predictable even after the divorce, help rebuild the shaken trust, reassure their child, and be attentive to his or her emotions, they might re-establish stability in their child’s surrounding world. For adolescents, it’s important to let them feel protected and taken care of. Many teenagers have a strong urge for independence, and a divorce can amplify this urge to extreme degrees. Teenagers have a habit of becoming more distant, and associating themselves more with their peers if they find their parents’ relationship disappointing. Just know that they are probably suffering too, and will respond to certain forms of help and support.

Perhaps the trickiest situation to deal with for a parent is when their child is ostensibly indifferent to what is happening. This phenomenon often goes hand in hand with the parents’ desire to avoid any negative impact on the children; parents are less prone to noticing signs of negative impact, as this would make them feel guiltier. A general rule in psychology is that people view the world in a way that reduces negative internal feelings, such as guilt. This bias is particularly prevalent in parents who initiated the divorce, and can lead to critical misunderstandings.

It is important to remember, though, about losses that the child is facing. Loss of a parent, at least partially, but also time and acceptance. It’s critical that the child has time with an emotionally open and accepting adult, to whom they can air out any grievances. Parents should also actively facilitate questions, be prepared to offer explanations and be ready to accept criticism and fierce emotions. At an appropriate time, if they see that the child is feeling down, the parent can approach them and say something like: “I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to adjust to this new reality”.

Parents should not be too intrusive, though. Instead, they should express their understanding and sympathy for the child’s feelings. They must let him know that he can open up at any time. The first few months after divorce are crucial for helping the child restore a sense of psychological balance, and it’s a cruel twist of fate that this is the exact time where the parents are least able to provide help. The long-term effect of the divorce is built primarily during this period.

In the short-term, on the other hand, some children become more “obedient” and “nice”. This obscures underlying psychological instability, in most cases. In general, it is important for parents to pay as much attention to their children immediately after the divorce, enlisting professional third-party help if necessary.

The phrase “children and divorce” probably elicits a negative association in your head. Are there benefits, though? Can a break-up be beneficial for children in any way?

Well, divorce can often come as a relief for the child; the parents’ incessant arguing and tension is now gone or reduced. Some kids just want to live their own lives and simply don’t want to be surrounded by fighting and shouting. This is not to say the resulting emotional and physical distance from divorce is good, but relief from pain and tension can allow the child to cope better. They can learn a lesson: take care of yourself, and if you are in a bad situation, try to fix it. By successfully coping with post-divorce life, the child increases his ability to adapt, and can even become more mature than his peers with stable families. Sometimes children end up viewing the divorce as a sign that they can and should solve their own problems, rather than just putting up with them.

In conclusion

While children of divorced parents are at substantial risk for long-term negative consequences, the extent to which these risks manifest themselves depends heavily on how the parents act. If they act in a stable and caring manner towards their children, they give these children hope for a new beginning.

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